The victims of World War II and their descendants call it “Bloody Sunday.”
On Jan. 21, 1945, Nazi soldiers, retaliating against partisans and their supporters living throughout these hills of Central Slovakia, burned down Ostrý Grúň and shot 64 villagers, women and children among them, dead. In the years since, the town has raised memorials, commissioned books, and constructed an archival room dedicated to those they lost.
But when the nation went to the polls to choose new leadership in national elections in March, nearly a fifth of this town, angered by mainstream politics, voted for an extremist party that openly supports the Nazi puppet state installed during the war.
“From my position, I can’t understand why residents choose this way to show their frustration about their current discontent,” says Jana Angletova, the mayor of Ostrý Grúň. Her father survived the massacre as a baby only because he was hidden under a duvet. Both of his parents, Mayor Angletova's grandparents, were rounded up and killed.
Amid corruption scandals, economic uncertainty, and now the migrant crisis, Slovakia, which is slated to take over the rotating presidency of the European Union next month, is not Europe's only trouble spot. Populists and anti-EU forces across the bloc are threatening the order forged after World War II. Most recently, Britain's vote to leave the EU appears to have put the ruling Conservatives on a rightward tilt while also bolstering the anti-immigrant United Kingdom Independence Party.
But for all the concerns across the continent about a return to the intolerance of the 1930s, it is in the post-communist countries of the EU that many fear the risk is greatest, as public frustration has undermined the ideals that these countries subscribed to upon joining the bloc. And with an accused fascist party now sitting in Slovakia's parliament, the director of the Museum of the Slovak National Uprising Stanislav Mičev calls it “a crisis of moral values.”
“Many European countries are supporting extremist parties, even more than in Slovakia. But western European extremist parties are not fascist parties,” he says. “When you say this party is xenophobic or supports a program of racial hatred, [supporters] will say this is not true. They say [the party] just wants to establish order here, and that it’s not possible today what happened during Hitler’s era. They are not aware of how fragile our politics are.”
'No shared vision'
Pundits expected Slovakia’s populist right to grow like similar parties across Europe, and grow it did. But polling almost just as well in the general election was the extreme right People's Party Our Slovakia (L’SNS), led by Marian Kotleba, who used to wear a uniform that resembled that of the Hlinka Guard, which rounded up Jews during Slovakia’s Nazi puppet state. It garnered 8 percent of the vote, landing in parliament for the first time.
Now many here are asking what has gone wrong, and whether a failure to address the shortcomings of the transformation to democracy have fed growing intolerance and resentments toward the political elite and the EU.
Part of Czechoslovakia during the fall of the Berlin Wall, the country’s Velvet Revolution was a reference point of the era. And in the 90s, when authoritarian leadership threatened the Western credentials of the young nation, prompting then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to call Slovakia a “black hole in the heart of Europe," Slovaks fought to join post-war alliances. “There was a common vision, we wanted to get into the EU and NATO,” says sociologist Olga Gyarfášová.
Over a decade since their 2004 accession to the EU, however, enthusiasm for the bloc has dimmed significantly. In one recent survey here, 52.3 percent of respondents were positive about Slovakia’s membership in the EU, dropping from 68 percent in 2010. “It is 12 years that Slovakia is formally anchored in the EU and NATO, one would it expect it to be more embedded,” says Ms. Gyarfášová, who oversaw the survey.
Today, she says, she attributes the rise of Kotleba as part of a nation lost. “Now there is no shared vision.”
Part of the problem is that EU membership was never weighed in terms of principles, argues sociologist Michal Vašečka. “The Slovak transformation was very much focused on changes of institutions and connected with the building of capitalism,” he says. “It was not very attached to values. It was perceived by most of the population not in terms of quality of life in all possible dimensions, but quality of life in material dimensions.”
Opening the door to fascism?
The obligations associated with membership spurred soul-searching during the EU’s sovereign debt crisis, which happened just as Slovakia’s growth pattern was buoying a nation always cast aside as the poorer half of Czechoslovakia. Support to Greece during its first bailout was so emotional and contested the Slovak government collapsed because of it.
“Suddenly Slovaks realized that their membership in the EU is not just taking eurofunds and freely moving around EU, but that there are some responsibilities too” says Mr. Vasecka. “This is the moment when positive feelings about the EU disappeared in a second.”
Since then problems have only mounted, and have seemed to reach another turning point with the refugee crisis. Slovakia Prime Minister Robert Fico, a Social Democrat, has been one of the loudest anti-refugee voices in Europe, even suing over the EU’s relocation quotas. Many blame him for desensitizing the public to aggressive rhetoric from all sides.
“Fico opened the door to primitive language,” says Matúš Kostolný, the editor of the daily Dennik N. “People see [Kotleba] talks dirty but so does everyone else. And at least Kotleba offers solutions [to the people]. Divisions between normal and extremist politics started to become really thin.”
Kotleba, a former school teacher, first tried his hand at politics with his "Slovak Togetherness – National Party," but it was banned in 2007 for fomenting hate. He re-emerged in 2011 with L’SNS, and shocked Slovakia in 2013 when he became the governor of Banská Bystrica. At that point the victory was looked upon as an anomaly, says Mr. Kostolný. “But when his party won at the national level, people started to see there is a bigger problem.”
Slovakia now joins just Hungary and Greece, via Jobbik and Golden Dawn respectively, in electing national lawmakers from parties with openly fascist tendencies to office. All three parties reject the label, as does Kotleba, whose office didn’t respond to requests for an interview.
But one of the first acts of the new members of L’SNS in Slovakia's parliament was to demand a minute of silence to mark the day Jozef Tiso was hanged in 1947 for treason. Tiso was the head of Slovakia's pro-Nazi, totalitarian government when 70,000 Slovaks were deported to their deaths during World War II.
Kotleba has a clear anti-Roma platform, and is against asylum seekers, as well as NATO and the EU. His party's website recently posted a congratulatory note to Britain for their vote on "Brexit," calling it false that Slovakia couldn't survive outside the confines of the bloc.
'People want a better life'
Slovakia’s political elite is still reeling from the rise of L’SNS. The president didn’t invite members of Kotleba’s party to a meeting for all representatives of parliament after the vote. Newspaper editors have mulled how to direct their coverage – weighing whether covering Kotleba gives his party unnecessary respect or ignoring him turns him into a folk hero.
While there are clear admirers of Tiso in Slovakia, most people say they are drawn to Kotleba as an anti-establishment figure and man of the people. Radovan Bránik, who founded a crisis response team "Modrý Anjel" ("Blue Angel") which assists during natural disasters like flooding, says that when needed, Kotleba dispatches help with efficacy. “When it comes to volunteering, if I ignore their politics, they are objectively the most effective volunteer workers,” he says.
And their message has resonated, especially in remote areas where mainstream politicians hardly step foot. “They say, we cleaned up your house, we helped you rebuild your village. Like we did that, we will help you rebuilt the Slovak political scene. And the Slovak political scene is in ruins.”
But these towns are riven by his rise, particularly in Banská Bystrica where he’s in power. In Ostrý Grúň, only a few will talk about politics, and almost no one will share a name, as suspicions over who voted for whom abound. The results have aggravated a generational divide in the town. A quarter of first-time votes went to Kotleba’s party, confounding older residents in the region.
Marian Gruber, who raises trout, calls it nothing short of a tragedy and a misunderstanding of democracy. “There is democracy, and there will be democracy. The question is whether we can understand it and exist within it,” he says. “People only want to take from it. Democracy is also about duties.”
“There is growth of radicalism. We give it a label in Slovakia, trying to ‘establish order,’” he says. “It is very dangerous.”
One resident, overseeing a work crew renovating her roof, scoffs at the concern. She says she has to travel to neighboring Austria to work and maintain a middle-class lifestyle and fears her sons will have to do the same. “There is one reason we voted for Kotleba," she says. "People want a better life.”
Richard Youngs, an expert on international democracy at Carnegie Europe, says that the protest vote against the elite is showing up everywhere, from Central Europe to Britain. “Because this is a phenomenon that we are seeing across the majority of EU member states today, there is something structural going on in terms of the relationship between populations, national governments, and what is going on at the EU level.”
Mr. Mičev, the museum director, says he worries the protest is turning into intolerance. “This country is saying we are a ‘Christian’ country, then how do we explain the hatred in context of the migrant wave?” he says. “How do we explain that the main line is not to help anybody, even those who need it?”
For Emilia Surianska, one of the last living survivors who lost her mother and sister during the massacre in Ostrý Grúň, says she worries that fellow Slovaks have lost their moral compass.
“If someone had to survive what I had to go through, the vote would never have ended like this,” says Ms. Surianska, who speaks about losing her family at age 7. “People don’t understand what refugees have to go through. They don’t understand what fascists are,” she says. “Slovakia is losing empathy. People can’t feel for other people anymore.”
This was part 10 of Who is 'Europe'?, a weekly series on how European natives and residents are responding to pressures from terrorism, migration, nationalism, and the 'European project.' See all of the stories on the series homepage.